Silent Spring: Chapter 13,14
Summary of Chapter 13: Through a Narrow Window
This chapter turns to what happens in the individual cell with chemical interference. The cell produces life energy, but chemicals disrupt cell oxidation. Doctors who were trained before 1950 do not have knowledge of this latest research. A living cell is like a flame that burns fuel to produce energy. Transformation of matter into energy is a constant flow with minute and precise natural chemical changes. The oxidation happens in the cell mitochondria, only recently studied with the help of an electron microscope.
Mitochondria are packets of enzymes, the cell powerhouses. Energy is produced and delivered where it is needed. If this process is interrupted, respiration can continue, but no energy is produced. The cell becomes a racing engine, heated up but not giving out power. Radiation does this, and so do chemicals. If any of the enzymes are missing, oxidation does not take place. Without oxygen, normal cells turn into cancer cells and birth defects.
Commentary on Chapter 13: Through a Narrow Window
This chapter is effective because we are used to looking at the macroscopic world, and though we hear chemicals are affecting the body, we do not think of the precision of the body’s production of energy on the microscopic level. We see the cell as through an electron microscope, and the internal cosmos is every bit as impressive as seeing the solar system through a telescope. It is life up close. If we could observe the uncoupling of molecules through poisonous chemicals, the way Carson has described it, it would appear as catastrophic as it actually is to the body. It is the sort of chapter that could be made into a convincing computer graphic. The author warns of mutations, disease, mental retardation, and sterility through chemical interference.
Summary of Chapter 14: One in Every Four
Now Carson turns to the subject of cancer. There were always natural causes of cancer such as the sun’s radiation, or radiation from rocks, or poisoning from arsenic. Now there is humanly created cancer from carcinogens, cancer-producing chemicals. Soot is one of the earliest carcinogens dating from the beginning of the industrial age. It took a long time for scientists to discover environmental cancer caused by soot, arsenic, and uranium. Cancer was once an accident or disease of old people, but now, Carson notes (in the 1960s), more children die of cancer than any other disease. She includes pesticides as carcinogens, and adds more if we add leukemia. Arsenic, DDT, lindane, benzene hexachloride, the nitrophenols, the moth crystals, chlordane, and the solvents in which they are carried, all have been found as carcinogens. Farmers and housewives and children are caught in the fallout of commercial products that usually contain a combination of chemicals.
One theory of how cancer forms is that the cell respiration or oxidation is irreversibly destroyed. The cells learn to survive by fermentation and continue for a long time in this condition to produce energy until the organism breaks down. This is why there may be a long latent period for some cancers. Carson concludes there is no safe dosage of a carcinogen. The irony is that some of the same chemicals that cause cancer are used to treat it as well in chemotherapy.
Another theory is the mutation theory of cancer in which the chromosomes mutate. The cells multiply in a wild manner, causing an unstable cancer tissue. Benzene is a chemical with an affinity to bone marrow, a cause of cancer and leukemia. Urethane is another carcinogen. The chlorinated hydrocarbons disturb sex hormones and may account for cancer of the sex organs. Most people have multiple exposures to all these chemicals, if from nothing else, the pollution of water.
Commentary on Chapter 14: One in Every Four
One reason the public is slow to recognize chemicals as carcinogens, she mentions, is that they cling to the idea there is a single cause for cancer, and therefore, a single cure that will be discovered. Carson points out that since humans introduced the carcinogens, they can withdraw them, and that would be a great solution in itself. That would lighten the load of one in every four Americans developing cancer. This is not likely to happen since the sale of chemicals is an accepted part of the economy and our lives. The tragic irony of Carson’s conclusion is that she herself was slowly dying of cancer as she finished this book.